Should states use different methods to hold alternative schools accountable?
Some educators say one-year graduation rates are a better way to measure the progress of students in alternative education settings.
The California State Board of Education has approved a change to its accountability system that would allow alternative schools — such as dropout recovery schools — to report one-year graduation rates instead of the percentage of students who earn a diploma within four years.
Beginning this fall, the change would apply to the category of schools — known in California as those with Dashboard Alternative School Status (DASS) — that enroll students behind on credits for graduation, but who are expected to complete the requirements within a year.
At a meeting last week, the board approved a method for calculating a one-year rate as part of a larger effort to create a set of measurements that better capture what takes place in DASS schools.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), high schools must report an Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate for students who entered 9th grade and graduated four years later. But because alternative schools serve students who have often left school and returned — and in general are experiencing a number of risk factors — the majority don’t complete high school on a traditional timeline.
“Students in alternative settings are historically less likely to graduate in four years due to mobility, transfer and other external factors,” Carinne Deeds, a senior policy associate with the American Youth Policy Forum, and Jennifer DePaoli, a senior researcher and policy adviser with Civic Enterprises, wrote in a report last year that examined a number of accountability issues affecting alternative schools.
Civic Enterprises is one of the organizations that produces the annual Building a Grad Nation Report, which tracks progress toward meeting the GradNation campaign goal of 90% by 2020. In reviewing federal, school-level graduation data, DePaoli said in an interview with Education Dive that they found schools categorized as "alternative" to be overrepresented among schools identified as low-graduation-rate high schools.
“Does it make sense that these schools would be so overrepresented?” she asked. “In a lot of places, they do have this alternative mission.”
In their brief, Deeds and DePaoli wrote that because there is so much diversity in alternative schools, it’s important for states to better define them. And in a recent blog post, Alex Medler, senior director for the National Charter School Resource Center, noted that in the same way research on charter schools has identified both “high-performing and lousy charter schools,” more research is needed on the roughly 4,000 alternative education campuses (AECs) in the U.S.
“While the number of students in AECs has increased dramatically over the last few years, the growth of AECs and their impact on young people’s learning and life prospects has not been subject to much debate — and little research scrutiny,” Medler wrote.
Alternative schools include continuation schools where a student behind on credits might spend a few months in order to catch up and then return to the home school to graduate. Many students are also assigned to community day schools because they have been expelled or for other disciplinary reasons. Others, such as charter schools serving returning students, apply to be part of the DASS program.
If a student has only been at a school for a few months, “it doesn’t make sense to assign their graduation to that school. Their academic trajectories are shaped by other schools,” Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, the associate director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, said in an interview. He also heads an advisory task force working on recommendations for accountability measures for alternative schools.
The California School Dashboard uses colors to communicate how schools are performing on specific indicators, with red indicating the lowest performance and blue, the highest. Applying a four-year graduation rate to alternative schools puts most of them in the “red,” but Ruiz de Velasco said simulations show that a with a one-year rate, many schools would move into the green and blue zone.
“If you are always red and everyone in your category is red, there is no incentive. You could double your rate and still be red,” he said, adding that using a one-year rate creates differentiation among these schools. “That is what you want to see. You want to give teachers and principals in those schools the incentive that they can move into the green and the blue.”
‘Not being counted’
In the charter sector, there has been rapid growth in schools serving 16- to 24-year-olds — referred to as “opportunity youth” or “at-promise” students. School for Integrated Academics and Technology (SIATech), for example, is a combination high school diploma and career development program with 15 sites in California. The average age of students attending the schools is 19 years and four months, and many are five to six years below grade level when they enter, Ernie Silva, the executive director of external affairs, said in an interview.
“I’m a dropout recovery school, so my kids aren’t there four years later,” he said. “Over 60% are not being counted in the state’s graduation rate.”
Under the current four-year cohort rate, SIATech — which operates both a classroom-based model and a blended learning format — has an overall graduation rate of about 27%, Silva said. His calculations of how many students eventually graduate pushes that figure over 40%. Using a one-year rate, and assuming students made the progress they needed to in that time frame, he said the schools would get closer to 67%. Under ESSA, high schools with a graduation rate below that level are identified for “comprehensive support and improvement.”
While ESSA allows states to report the percentage of students who completed high school in five, six or seven years — known as an extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate — this indicator would still not capture many of the students who eventually graduate from alternative settings, Silva said. Those rates, he added, are more likely to benefit continuation schools.
Portland (Oregon) Public Schools began using a one-year graduation rate several years ago when it worked with Education Northwest to create a report card specifically for its mix of contracted alternative education providers — known in Oregon as private alternative schools. The providers included Gateway to College programs in which students that meet at-risk criteria complete a high school diploma and earn college credits on a community college campus.
District leaders were fighting a perception that all of the contracted alternative programs were bad and were looking for a better way to measure if the schools were making progress and should continue to have their contracts renewed, Carla Gay, who leads college and career readiness efforts in PPS and used to oversee the district’s alternative schools, said in an interview.
“These kids come to these schools inherently off-track,” she said, adding that the focus on the four-year rate “marginalizes a whole group of kids that are actually persisting and are graduating.”
The district’s Alternative High School Accountability Report compares students in those programs to the overall population of PPS high school students in areas such as homelessness and being a parent. For example, 3% of PPS high school students were homeless in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 7.6% of those in alternative schools. Pregnant or parenting students made up 5.6% of those in alternative schools, compared to 1.1% in the general high school population. The alternative programs also serve a higher percentage of English learners and students with disabilities.
Attendance or credits?
Attendance is another area in which alternative schools compare poorly to traditional high schools. Under ESSA, states are increasingly using the chronic absenteeism rate as a school climate indicator. A recent EdSource article noted that almost 60% of students attending California’s continuation schools during the 2016-17 school year were chronically absent.
Silva noted, however, that for students in SIATech’s blended learning program — as opposed to its classroom-based model — schools are "independent-study funded," meaning that schools aren’t paid for the number of days students are online but on "the value of the work product." Teachers, he added, often "attribute less time" to an assignment completed by a student in independent study than they would the same assignment completed in the classroom.
In PPS, Gay noted that the district’s report card for alternative schools emphasizes growth — whether students’ attendance rates have improved in the alternative setting. The Denver Public Schools also tracks the extent to which students’ attendance improves over the previous year.
Ruiz de Velasco added that because the purpose of alternative schools is to “accelerate credit accrual” — and because many use an “anytime, anywhere” blended learning model — it might be more appropriate to measure credit accrual.
Leaders of alternative schools would also like to see some different indicators related to college and career readiness, said Silva, who also directs the Reaching At-Promise Students Association, which will hold its annual policy forum in San Diego in November.
As a school climate measure, he would like the state to participate in the Gallup Student Poll, which measures engagement, hope, entrepreneurial aspiration, and career and financial literacy. The 2017-18 results show that SIATech students responded more positively on many of the statements than those in the general high school population nationally.
“What’s important to us is that our high-risk, formerly disengaged students perform significantly above the traditional high school averages,” he said.
Potential concerns about hiding dropouts
Discussions of whether alternative schools should be held to different standards naturally raise concerns about gaming the system to avoid accountability consequences and increasing the numbers of students who leave school with a “diploma that is meaningless,” DePaoli said.
She pointed to a 2017 ProPublica article on a Florida chain of for-profit alternative charter schools in which students work on computers with little oversight and report making little progress toward a diploma.
“The pushback mainly tends to be when you hear these stories,” DePaoli said. “We want to hold them accountable, and we want to separate out the good from the bad, but their [good] names are getting ruined by the bad ones.”
In California, when the task force collected feedback from interested groups, many suggested that adopting the one-year rate might lead to more struggling students being pushed into alternative models so that their performance doesn’t factor into a traditional school’s test scores or four-year graduation rates. California Department of Education officials responded that they would closely monitor enrollment in DASS schools specifically.
While DePaoli said she’s not aware of any other states considering the one-year rate for alternative schools, several states are “currently wrestling with their alternative accountability metrics and systems.” More than 30 states have also indicated that they plan to include extended-year graduation rates as part of their ESSA plans, she said.
Gay said that there are still challenges with using the one-year rate. “You are getting into a pretty technical, detailed data collection” in which not only the number of credits matters, but also whether the student needs electives or core academic courses to graduate.
She added that, as with any measure of student success, the one-year rate should be part of a larger body of evidence used to evaluate the performance of a school.
Both Gay and Silva noted that while these decisions don’t matter very much to students, they affect educators who are working in these schools. The alternative school administrators and teachers they included in creating the report card “came to feel a real strong attachment to the notion that we had different metrics for their schools,” Gay said. “It’s an alternative way to present the data.”
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